Saturday, December 3, 2016

Hey, New Yorker fans: Check this out

“You make sure that the names and dates are right, but then if it is a John McPhee piece, you make sure that the USGS report that he read, he read correctly; or if it is a John le CarrĂ© piece, when he says his con man father ran for Parliament in 1950, you make sure that it wasn’t 1949 or 1951.”

-- From a lecture by Peter Canby, New Yorker fact-checking director, Feb. 28, 2002

As I was growing up and aspiring to be a writer, I read the classics, which for me included Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and E.B. White.

All of whom wrote for The New Yorker.

Eventually I read Thurber’s “The Years With Ross,” about Thurber’s days at the magazine and his dealings with its founding editor, Harold Ross.

I liked this book so much that over the years I reread parts of it. The world he described seemed like so much fun. It was only years later that I read that E.B. White and others weren’t too pleased with what Thurber had written.

In 1975, Brendan Gill published “Here at The New Yorker,” which I didn’t like as much as the Thurber book. To some extent, Gill’s book seemed like a rebuttal of “The Years With Ross,” and he took the opportunity to take a few shots at Thurber. The shots were well-aimed, but I thought Gill himself came off as a jerk.

But over the years, during visits to the library, I sometimes reread parts of Gill’s book, too, because I was still in the thrall of the New Yorker mystique.

In later years, I’ve enjoyed reading – and rereading – “About Town,” a history of the magazine, written by Ben Yagoda. It’s a great book, written by a very nice guy whom I've been lucky enough to meet.

Anyway, if you’re steeped in New Yorker lore – even if you’re in it only up to your knees – chances are that you know about the magazine’s fabled fact-checking department, to which no nit was too small.

I say “was” because something I saw in the magazine recently made me wonder whether that department has been downsized.

I’m referring to “The Film J.D. Salinger Nearly Made,” by Jill Lepore, in the Nov. 21 issue.

The article tells how the reclusive author gave a TV producer permission to make a movie out of one of Salinger’s stories, “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.”

The article identifies one of the actors cast for the film as “Ted Bessel.” He’s referred to by name four times, each time as “Bessel.”

I immediately knew this was wrong. And if you grew up in the 1960s, there’s a good chance that you know it’s wrong, too.

The guy’s name was really “Bessell.” And it’s not as if he was some really obscure actor – for a number of years he played the boyfriend of Marlo Thomas in the hit show “That Girl.” Granted, after that he didn’t do very much, and his starring role in a short-lived series, “Me and the Chimp,” didn’t help. (And no, he didn’t play the chimp.)

I realize that a New Yorker fact checker’s job must be a tough one. I wouldn’t want it, even though my longtime job as a newspaper copy editor often involved fact checking.

Thing is, names are very easy to verify, especially these days. Checking whether it’s “Bessel” or “Bessell” is nowhere near as hard as checking whether, say, the Orinoco River has any fish and if so, what kind, and how many there are of each.

And checking a performer’s name is painless and easy; I won’t say the Internet Movie Database is 100 percent reliable, but for my purposes it’s almost always close enough.

The Salinger article is still on the magazine’s website.

And it still says “Bessel.”

Mr. Bessell, unfortunately, can’t stick up for himself – he’s been dead for 20 years – but I’m surprised that apparently no one has brought this to the editors’ attention.

(By the way, if you happen to be fact-checking this article, you might discover that, strictly speaking, I have spelled “Esme” wrong – the poor girl needs an accent over that last “e,” but I don’t know how to put one there. Perhaps one day I’ll get better at this word-processing stuff and I’ll throw her a bone – or maybe an extra tilde, or even an umlaut.)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Yep, the rich sure are different

I don’t watch a lot of TV, and when I do watch, I religiously avoid so-called reality shows.

I don’t care who gets voted off the island or thrown out of the house, and I’m hard put to muster much sympathy for would-be chefs who weep in their tureens as they and their deflated soufflĂ©s are sent packing.

But my limited viewing schedule does allow for one exception: “Shark Tank.”

It’s not that I particularly enjoy watching five entrepreneurs rip apart wannabe tycoons – and one another. After a while the arguments and insults seem like just so much shtick.

But I like “Shark Tank” because, all bantering aside, it’s educational. I like watching the entrepreneurs’ business minds work and seeing how they analyze proposals, even if at least some of what they say goes a wee bit over my pointy little head. And I like to think that other viewers can learn from the show too; I fear that our current educational systems fall short when it comes to teaching how things work in the real world.

However, there is one thing “Shark Tank” cannot teach me – something I have already known for years:

Rich people love to get free stuff.

If you’ve seen “Shark Tank,” you probably know what I mean. Whenever a would-be entrepreneur’s product is food or hats or whatever – but especially food – the Sharks respond with an enthusiasm that would put Pavlov’s dog to shame.

Especially Robert. Offer him free food and he’ll jump at the chance to eat it but not invest in it. (“These are the best oatmeal cookies/cupcakes/spare ribs/porterhouse steaks in the universe! Unfortunately, I’m out!”) Call him a sharp entrepreneur, call him a shrewd investor, maybe even call him a freeloader, but don’t call him late for snack time.

Yes, rich people love to get free stuff.

But I would like to add what I modestly call Murphy’s Corollary:

Rich people love to get people to do things for them for nothing. That’s one reason why they’re rich people.

I learned this lesson from a distant cousin of mine. I’ll call him Edward.

Many years ago, Edward wrote a letter to my Aunt Helen, who, like me, had never met him. Edward told Aunt Helen that he was researching his family genealogy and mentioned that the two of them were related. Aunt Helen, who at that time was the closest thing my family had to a senior matriarch – if a Roman Catholic nun can be called a matriarch – knew enough about the family to know that Edward wasn’t a fraud.

So she wrote back.

Eventually Edward, a lawyer, invited her to his family’s home in the Washington, D.C., area. Apparently, judging from what I heard about his home and its surroundings, the law business had been very very good to Edward. He also knew some well-known people, including Ethel Kennedy and Andy “Moon River” Williams.

Although I can’t say with certainty that Edward lived high on the hog, I’m sure he had at least one foot in the stirrups.

Edward also became acquainted with my younger aunt, Aunt Dorothy, who was also a nun and who also visited his home and kept in touch with him.

My one encounter with Edward occurred some years ago during the week of Thanksgiving. I had traveled out of town to spend the holiday with relatives, including Aunt Dorothy. Unfortunately, my aunt had taken ill and was in the hospital, but her condition was improving.

When Edward called my relatives to see how Aunt Dorothy was doing, someone told him I was visiting, and he asked to talk to me.

I spent the better part of the next hour (OK, maybe it was only a half-hour, but it sure felt like an hour) answering what I would call a slew of questions about my family – that is, I would call it a slew if calling it a “slew” weren’t such a ridiculous understatement.

What were my brothers’ and sisters’ names? How old were they? Were they married? How old was I? Was I married? And so on. And so on.

The next day I visited Aunt Dorothy in the hospital and told her about my talk with Edward – or, rather, his talk with me. And I told her about the grilling I’d endured.

My aunt was surprised, to put it mildly. She told me that Edward had asked her all those questions some time ago, so why did he put me through the third (or maybe third and a half) degree?

Looking back, I suppose the obvious answer was “because he could,” but I never would have said it out loud because Aunt Dorothy and Edward were on such good terms.

So I would have forgotten about Edward and gone on with my life if it weren’t for one thing.

During the conversation, Edward had also asked me to do him a favor.

When I got back to my hometown, could I try to dig up a couple of things for him?

One of them was a news story about an accident that killed a family member at the state fairgrounds during the 1920s. And Edward also wanted me to try to find this same relative’s immigration certificate.

Edward said nothing about paying me to do this or reimbursing me for any expenses, but I said OK anyway. I was, after all, brought up to be polite.

A few weeks later, I visited my local library’s Local History department and was able to find a story about the fatal accident. That seemed easy enough.

Getting the immigration certificate was more of a chore. It turned out that such records were kept in the basement of the building that was then the county courthouse. I had to go there and find someone to help me look it up. One of the clerks gave me a book that he said contained what I needed, but he nervously warned me to be careful because the paper was old and easy to tear. I got the impression that the slightest rip would cause his supervisor to rip him several new orifices.

I found the certificate – I will say that looking at it did give me a low-grade thrill, considering that it was literally a piece of family history – and I was able to order a copy of it without committing any archival mayhem.

At one point – I can’t remember whether it was before or after I left the records office – I was walking through the basement when a sheriff’s deputy politely asked me to step aside.

I did so, and then watched as a small parade of prisoners was marched from the jail – there was an underground passageway – to the courthouse. My memory isn’t always reliable, but as I recall they were shackled. I couldn’t tell what they were accused of or how dangerous they were just by looking at them because I simply avoided looking at them. Of course there was always the possibility that one of them would overpower a guard, grab the guard’s gun and hold me hostage.

Yes, I sure hoped Edward would appreciate how I took my life in his hands just so he could graft part of another branch onto the family tree.

Eventually I mailed all this stuff to Edward. As a bonus – and a subtle hint – I enclosed, without comment, a list of professional genealogists from my hometown area. That’s “professional” as in “people usually pay other people good money to have this stuff done, El Cheapo.”

I’ve been racking my brain, but to the best of my knowledge I don’t think Edward ever acknowledged what I did for him, though – my memory again being what it is – maybe he did send a card and I forgot about it. But I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

And I can definitely state that he never sent me any money or other tokens to recompense me for my time and expense.

Not even a “Let me know if I can do something for you sometime.”

Not even an autographed picture of Andy “Moon River” Williams.

So maybe he didn’t think my subtle hint was all that subtle.

But what did I care? Although I didn’t go so far as to check every last follicle each night before I went to bed, I figured that Cousin Edward was now out of my hair, for at least a while.

As it turned out, “at least” was putting it mildly.

A few years later, I was visiting Aunt Dorothy when, just to make conversation, I asked her if she’d heard from Cousin Edward lately.

To my surprise and shock, her face collapsed in tears.

“Cousin Edward died!”

I immediately went into Consolation Mode, mumbling the usual “Gee, too bad, sorry to hear it,” and similar sentiments.

And I must say I’m proud of myself for having enough self-control to not say the first thing that popped into my head when Aunt Dorothy told me Edward had died:

Well, that’s one way to find out about your ancestors….

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

This just in from the (unsubstantiated) literary rumor mill....

Word has it that Harper Lee left yet another unpublished manuscript.

It's based on the life of John Cameron Swayze.

It's called "Go Test a Watch, Man!"

Friday, May 6, 2016

Coming soon: 'Percy Kilbride at Colonus'?

Seen in the DVD section of my local chain bookstore:

"Ma and Pa Kettle: Complete Comedy Collection."

(Not to be confused with "Ma and Pa Kettle: Complete Greek Tragedy Collection.")

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Fun at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re on the list to receive this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail but haven’t worked on them yet, you probably shouldn’t read this. Whether the rest of you should read this is something I’ll leave to you and your conscience, not to mention your tolerance for bloggers who write cutesy intros.)

While preparing for the trip to Stamford for this year’s event, I realize with some surprise that it’s my ninth attempt at crossword immortality and my second at Stamford, where the tournament originated in 1978 and where it returned last year after seven years in Brooklyn.

As always, I aim to improve my overall score, which last year was 153 out of 566. (My best overall score, a few years ago, was 142 out of 592.)

And as always, everyone does seven puzzles -- six on Saturday and one more Sunday morning. This is in addition to the puzzle for the championship competition, which takes place early Sunday afternoon and features only the finalists.

After so many years, even someone as dense as I am knows one of the big secrets to competing: Get into the tournament room early and grab a seat. Yes, it’s a big room (they don’t call it “ballroom” for nothing), but it fills up awfully fast.

After tournament founder Will Shortz’s introductory remarks, the competition proceeds with its usual efficiency, and I am faced with the first puzzle of the day, which is usually easy.

This year it’s “For Cooler Heads,” by Kristian House, containing puns about jails. (“Jailed, like a mixologist?” is BEHIND BARS.) For the most part it’s easy, but there’s one part of it temporarily costs me my cool.

I should explain that in this tournament, accuracy and speed count. Last year, the championship was decided by a handful of seconds. In all the puzzles, you get a bonus for finishing early, depending on how much time is left on the clock. But if you hand a puzzle in without checking it, you risk missing an error – and missing the 150-point bonus you get for a perfect solution.

My problem comes with 4 Down, “One of the things little boys are made of.” This pertains to a rhyme from my childhood. Little girls, we were told, were made of “sugar and spice and everything nice,” while little boys were made of “snakes and snails and puppy dog tails.”

So the answer is SNAKES, right?

Except that according to the grid, the answer has only five letters.

So I examine the Across answers for that part of the grid and realize that the answer is supposed to be SNIPS.

“Snips and snails?” That’s not how I remember it. But that’s what it has to be, and that’s what I put in, after spending a lot of time (in tournament terms) checking and rechecking.

Of course you’re not allowed to use the Internet during the tournament, and if you try it one of the proctors will probably catch you.

But nobody cares if you use it two weeks later, so I just did and found that, according to The Word Detective, it is indeed SNIPS, though another version has it as SNAKES.

To me it was always SNAKES. I guess that compared with Ms. House, I grew up in a rougher neighborhood. (And it might bear noting that Mr. Shortz lives in a place called Pleasantville.)

I later find out that as a result of all this, my score for Puzzle 1 is 1,080, compared with 1,090 last year.

Puzzle 2 is usually quite hard. I’ve often thought of it as being the second-hardest puzzle of the seven that everyone does, with No. 5 the toughest.

And “‘T’ Time” is by Patrick Blindauer, who can be tricky.

But I don’t find the puzzle to be all that tough, once you see that all the groupings of black spaces are shaped like the letter T, and each answer contains a T.

But then I hit another wall.

8 Down is “Talkative Windows assistant.” Seven letters.

I have no idea. I’ve used a Mac at home for years, and though I’ve used Windows at my workplaces, I don’t remember this “assistant.” Is it that little figure that used to jump out annoyingly at me when I used to hit the “?” icon in Word and “talk” in the form of balloons? I remember that guy, but he never told me his name.

OK, so we hit the Across words again:

From too many years of French classes, I know that “ ’Tis in Tours” is “C’est.” Note the capital C.

“Tale from medieval times” would seem to be CONTE. I don’t know it for sure, but I do know that the French term for “short story” is “conte,” and the other down clues are giving me “onte,” so CONTE seems to make sense. (Or, for our purposes, “cOnte.”

“‘The Sopranos’ restaurateur.” Uh oh. Sorry to say I never got around to watching that, but supporting clues seem to make it just about certain that it’s ARTIE (or, again, “aRtie”).

“Tenants” is obviously “renTers.”

“Tatum and Hill, in ’21 Jump Street.’” This takes me longer than it should (no, I never watched that show either, let alone the movie). Then it his me (and I almost hit myself literally): “cosTars.”

“ ‘Three Sisters’ playwright Chekhov”? ANTON (or “antoN”).

Finally “ ’Twixt 12 and 20” is TEENAGE (or “teenAge”).

Add up the letters I capitalized and you get C+O+R+T+A+N+A. So that’s the name of the Windows assistant. Has to be. (Unless I’m wrong about “conte.”)

Later, in my hotel room, I Google “Cortana,” and I’m right. It also turns out that Cortana looks nothing like that assistant I was used to seeing. I feel dumb and out of touch until later in the tournament, when Will Shortz indicates that I wasn’t the only one stymied.

I later find out that my score for Puzzle 2 is 1,335, compared with 1,100 last year. Not bad.

Puzzle 3, “Series Cancellations,” causes me some worries because it’s by Mike Shenk, The Wall Street Journal’s puzzle editor, who can be tricky – and who on at least one occasion has composed the championship puzzle.

But, as is usually the case with Puzzle 3, it’s not bad. Sample theme clue: “TV series about a boorish fraternity?” is HOUSE OF CADS.

But although I don’t seem to hit any roadblocks, I somehow lose ground: My score on Puzzle 3 is 1,335 (yes, same as for Puzzle 2), compared with last year’s 1,555. Then again, it was the largest puzzle yet (96 words, compared with 78 and 86 words, respectively, for the other two puzzles), so maybe that, and my fear of Mr. Shenk, worked against me.

During the lunch break I find out that my ranking, so far, is 199, which is a surprise; I hadn’t known I was doing that badly.

But there’s still the afternoon. And Sunday morning.

I perhaps could have done better on Puzzle 4, “Symbology” by Zhouqin Burnikel, if I hadn’t psyched myself out upon seeing that the clues for the theme answers were along the lines of “[ ]” and “/” with (in these respective instances) the not-so-difficult answers TAX LEVELS and CUT SHARPLY. (In other words, “Brackets and Slash.”)

So my score is 1,180 compared with last year’s 1,185.

And now we come to Puzzle 5, commonly called “The Bastard Puzzle,” and usually with good reason. It’s called “Changing Lanes,” and it’s by another sometimes challenging constructor, Patrick Berry. (I consider myself a First Amendment absolutist, but if someone wants to pass a bill barring people named Patrick from making crossword puzzles, I’m sure I can easily arrange to look the other way.)

The themes of “Bastard Puzzles” are often, to put it kindly, convoluted, so my rule of thumb is to attack Puzzle 5 by finding non-theme clues that I can easily handle, racking up as many points as I can, and hope that when I’ve filled in all the straightforward clues I can get a glimmer of what’s going on.

In this case, some of the answers are going all over the place. One example: 37 Down is “John Updike novel that won the Pulitzer.” The answer is RABBIT AT REST, but there are only seven squares. Turns out that you’re supposed to fill in RABBI at 37 Down, then turn right (changing lanes, get it?) so that 58 Across is ITATRES and then go one space down for the final T.

And now you know why so many of the folks who make puzzles for this event attend the tournament but somehow manage to sneak out of the ballroom while their handiwork is torturing the contestants.

With maybe five to 10 minutes left I figure out what’s going on and furiously try to fill in the theme answers, but this is the only puzzle I don’t finish on time. (Though I had plenty of company, to put it mildly.) I think I did get more answers than most people (104 out of 118), leaving me with a score of 1,040 compared with last year’s Puzzle 5 score of 790.

Puzzle 6 is usually one of the easiest ones in the tournament. Shortz calls it a “palate cleanser” for contestants who wouldn’t mind being Patrick Berry’s “clock cleaner.”

Puzzle 6, “I’ll Be There,” is by Joel Fagliano, and the theme answers consist of familiar phrases with an “I” added, so that, for example, QUAKER STATE becomes QUAKIER STATE. I breeze through this pretty well, scoring 1,600, but apparently my breeze wasn’t gusty enough to match last year’s Puzzle 6 score, which was 1,800.

I later find that my overall ranking is 226. Again, why so much lower?

But some things are more important than crossword puzzles, and one of them is celebrating the life of a man who made a lot of entertaining ones. His name was Merl Reagle, and he died last year. On Saturday evening, Patrick Creadon, one of the people who made “Wordplay” (and a nice guy too, I discover while sharing an elevator with him) presents humorous outtakes from the film that feature Merl.

A surprise guest is Jeff Walters, who tells how he and his late wife, Clara, loved to solve crosswords together. After Clara found out she had cancer, Jeff approached Reagle about putting together a puzzle that contained answers relating to Clara’s life. Reagle managed to do this in a syndicated puzzle that to most solvers was just a typical puzzle. (None of the clues referred to Clara or her life.)

When it came time for her to solve the puzzle, Clara gradually figured out what was going on and was delighted.

Merl Reagle did all this free – all he wanted, he told Jeff, was to be told how Clara reacted.

Yes, I guess there are some things that are more important than crossword puzzles.

But I still want to clean up on Puzzle 7 on Sunday. It’s the tournament’s biggest puzzle – Sunday size – but usually not all that hard. We have 45 minutes to do it, and I’ve been known to finish it with 25 minutes left on the clock, meaning a lot of bonus points.

This year’s Puzzle 7 is “Page-Turners” by Lynn Lempel, who has fashioned many of the Monday puzzles (the easiest of the week) for The New York Times, where Shortz is the puzzle editor.

The theme answers are puns about book titles, so that “Novel about wickedly good aces? (1988)” is THE SATANIC SERVES. (Think tennis.) I

fill all the spaces carefully but as quickly as I can, then look up at the clock and see that I don’t have 25 minutes left. I

have 28 minutes left.

In the past I’ve maybe taken too much time checking my answers. This time, at 226 in the standings, I decide to take a chance and give my puzzle a very quick check before handing it in.

This strategy pays off: I score 2,250 compared with 2,160 for last year’s Puzzle 6.

A couple of hours later, it’s time for the championship rounds. I’m sure you’ll be thunderstruck to find out that I’m not one of the finalists.

Before those rounds, Merl Reagle’s widow, Marie, presents a new memorial award – the MEmoRiaL – for lifetime achievement in crossword construction. The award goes to veteran Maura B. Jacobson, who for years was the creator of Puzzle 6. She’s unable to attend, but her husband, Jerry, is on hand to accept the award.

The big finish of tournament is basically a duel between longtime champ Dan Feyer and frequent also-ran Howard Barkin. How did it end? You can see here.

And – as I’m sure you’re asking – what about me?

I originally finished at 220 overall, though the other day, as adjustments were made, I was upgraded to 219 out of 575 contestants. (I’m usually downgraded.)

Thing is, I scored 9,820 points this year, compared with 9,680 last year.

So why did I sink from 152 to 219?

A closer look at the standings provides the answer.

Last year, 126 contestants scored at least 10,000 points and 39 contestants solved all seven puzzles with no mistakes.

This year, 194 scored more than 10,000, and 67 had perfect scores for all seven puzzles. (I was perfect for every puzzle but No. 5.)

If I’d had this year’s score last year, I probably would have finished at 139.

But either the puzzles are easier or a lot of the contestants are smarter.

Let’s just say that, as far as I’m concerned, the puzzles aren’t getting easier.

So what’s a poor schlub to do?

Maybe next year, if he hasn’t won the presidency, I can legally arrange for Donald Trump to build a wall around the Stamford Marriott to keep out undesirables. (“Undesirables” meaning people who are much better solvers than I am.)

Who’s up for a referendum?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

At the (old) movies: Chaney and Chan

Some notes from a mystery double feature presented by the local cinephile society:

In one special way, “Calling Dr. Death” (1943, Universal) is a rare film.

I don’t mean that it’s a film that for years was thought lost. Or that it’s a film of rare quality, for Lord knows it isn’t that.

“Calling Dr. Death” is a rare 1940s movie because one of its leading players is still with us.

I’m referring to Patricia Morison (note to any fellow copy editors out there: yes, there’s only one “r” in that last name), who plays Stella, assistant to Dr. Steel, who is played by Lon Chaney Jr.

Ms. Morison, I’m happy to say, last month celebrated her 101st birthday.

I mostly remember her as the villainess in Basil Rathbone’s last Sherlock Holmes film, “Dressed to Kill.” She later found more fame as a member of the original cast of “Kiss Me, Kate.”

“Calling Dr. Death,” directed by Reginald LeBorg, was the first in a series of “Inner Sanctum” mysteries produced by Universal. These movies were spin-offs of a radio show called “Inner Sanctum,” which was a weekly anthology of suspense plays, none of which were adapted for the movies.

The “Inner Sanctum” radio show began with one of the medium’s most famous sound effects: a slowly closing, creaking door that suddenly slams. Each radio drama was introduced by a narrator whose cheerful remarks were larded with so much campy gallows humor that you could almost feel the rope burns.

A year later, Columbia launched a series of B movies based on a similar radio show, “The Whistler.” These films, a few of them directed by a young William “House on Haunted Hill” Castle, hold up better than “Calling Dr. Death.” I haven’t seen the other Inner Sanctum movies, but I suspect that the folks at Columbia looked at them and figured out what not to do.

For some reason, the folks at Universal did not use (or weren’t allowed to use) the creaking-door sound. (Decades later, that effect was used to open each episode of the “CBS Radio Mystery Theater.”)

Instead, Universal came up with a different opening. We fade in on what looks like a library room. In the middle is a table. In the middle of the table is a big glass jar. In the jar is a distorted, dismembered head that introduces the movie.

I don’t know how “Calling Dr. Death” did at the box office, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the number crunching, that disembodied head had plenty of company.

Lon Chaney Jr. was known for playing characters who, like the Wolf Man, were caught in and tortured by circumstances not of their own making.

In this particularly tragic case, the circumstances are Edward Dein’s script and Mr. Chaney’s agent.

The script tells how Dr. Steel, who specializes in hypnosis, comes to believe that he has killed his unfaithful wife. He is dogged by a Columbo-style police detective played by J. Carrol Naish, an actor who was Irish and who was known for playing roles that capitalized on dialect humor. He played Charlie Chan on TV and the title role in “Life With Luigi,” a stupefyingly stereotypical radio show. When I was a kid, I first saw him as an Indian chief in a short-lived TV comedy called “Westward Ho.”

I don’t remember seeing Naish ever playing an Irish guy. (He’s also in the first “Whistler” movie, too.)

I can’t fault Chaney, but there’s not much good he – or anybody – can bring to a film that incorporates the worst of bad old-time radio, particularly the overwrought interior monologue, which we hear during a close-up of an (understandably) agonized Chaney.

When the plot is finally resolved and we’re finally told what was really going on, well, let’s just say it happened it bit too fast for me. Then again, it probably couldn’t have happened fast enough.

I must have seen the second feature,"Charlie Chan in Panama” (Fox, 1940), before; 40 years ago, one of the local TV stations used to run all the Chan films, then all the Rathbone Holmes films, so again, I should have been at least a little familiar with it.

So imagine my delight when the film got underway and I realized I had no memory of it. It was like watching a new Chan film, so I could play along and try to solve it as the great detective tried to stop a plot to blow up the Panama Canal.

One nice thing about the Chan films – including those I do remember seeing – is that most of the time the supporting cast consists of actors who are forgettable or whom I’ve seen so many times elsewhere that I forget whodunit anyway.

This film has its share of famous heavies – Jack LaRue and the often-employed Lionel Atwill, who also played Professor Moriarty. (I endured gum surgery many years ago, an experience not made any easier by the surgeon’s uncanny resemblance to Mr. Atwill. When the doc died, I was tempted to attend the wake just to make sure.)

The production values and direction (by Norman Foster) were solid, the film moved along likely, and the cluing (as we mystery writers call it) was fair, though right near the end I had a pretty good idea who the baddie was.

And, as you might have heard, the Panama Canal was not blown up.